Corrected: A previous version of this article misstated Montana’s state teachers’ union name. It is the Montana Federation of Public Employees.
The nation’s second-largest teachers’ union is gearing up to expand its network of supporters and fight back against conservative efforts to restrict protections for LGBTQ students, limit how teachers can address race in lessons, and expand school choice.
The American Federation of Teachers announced Thursday that it was awarding more than $1.5 million collected from member dues to 27 state and local affiliates. The money will go toward efforts to organize parents and educators, providing training to support advocacy campaigns, and increasing collaboration among union affiliates and other organizations in communities.
“As others try to ban books and split people apart and split America apart, we are being honest about our problems and working together to solve them to have a better America,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten in a press conference. “This program helps deepen and strengthen the relationships that are critical to student success.”
Weingarten said she hopes the grants will be seed money to lay the groundwork for sustainable projects, and that this may be the first year of a multi-year commitment from the AFT.
“We feel responsible for every single child in every single school,” she said. “There is a sense of what we need to do. We know what works. We focus on the strategies that work. One of those strategies is that it does take a village. ... Rarely do people on the ground get the money they need to do this.”
Here are a few of the grant awardees and their projects:
- United Teachers of Dade, the teachers’ union in Miami, received $75,000 to advocate for more school funding, protections for LGBTQ students, and resistance to book-banning efforts. (The president of this union, Karla Hernández-Mats, who is also a vice president of AFT, is Charlie Crist’s running mate in the gubernatorial election against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.)
- The Norfolk Federation of Teachers in Virginia received $65,000 to advocate for affordable housing, increase community voice in the upcoming school board elections, and build support for “teaching honest history.”
- The Houston Federation of Teachers received $50,000 to organize on several issues, including equitable school funding, “honest history” curriculum, and interrupting the “privatization of public schools.”
- The United Teachers Los Angeles received $75,000 to strengthen relationships between parents and educators to push for the union’s “Beyond Recovery” campaign, which includes fully staffing classrooms and developing green school facilities.
- The United Federation of Teachers, the New York City teachers’ union, received $60,000 to advocate for more project-based learning in schools and fewer standardized tests.
- The Chicago Teachers Union received $75,000 to add capacity to its parent-educator coalition so that the community is more involved in the union’s priorities, such as expanding community schools, preventing the city from closing schools, and advocating for an elected school board.
- The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association in Florida received $50,000 to establish a new community-union coalition and engage students and parents to identify issues of common concern.
Grants come as other parent groups attack teachers and their unions
The campaigns to bolster relationships between parents and teachers’ unions comes as several big issues in education—including how to teach about race and the nation’s history of racism, what books should be available for students to read, and the rights of LGBTQ students—have become divisive political debates.
While polling suggests that most parents trust and support their children’s teachers, groups alleging that schools aren’t sufficiently dedicated to parents’ rights have formed in opposition to teachers’ unions. Some of these groups have argued that teachers’ unions kept schools closed during the pandemic for longer than necessary and have promoted inappropriate content in classrooms about race, gender, and sexuality.
Weingarten herself has been a frequent target of Moms for Liberty, a national advocacy group of mostly conservative parents. In August, for example, the group tweeted in response to Weingarten sharing an article about health care for transgender children that, “Randi kept schools closed, masked our kids & is now promoting the mutilation and sterilization of children. ... Time to put the k-12 cartel out of business.”
Montana state Rep. Moffie Funk, a Democrat and former teacher, said at the press conference that over the past year or so,school board meetings in the state have turned ugly, with tensions running high during debates about mask mandates, critical race theory, and books in school libraries that focus on LGBTQ issues.
The Montana Federation of Public Employees received $75,000 to work with Funk’s political action fund, Montanans Organized for Education, to increase participation among educators, families, and students in school board meetings and to ensure civility in public debate about education issues.
“Kids need to see the adults acting like adults and not going to public meetings and throwing slurs around and misinformation,” Funk said.
Meanwhile, Zeph Capo, the president of the Texas AFT, said the passage of a law to restrict topics that make students “feel discomfort” has made it harder for teachers to teach about racism and slavery. Some teachers have had their certification questioned for talking about controversial subjects in class, he claimed.
“This is about making sure we teach what the truth is,” he said of the grants.
In response, Weingarten reiterated AFT’s pledge to legally defend any teacher who’s disciplined for teaching the truth. (In a conversation with Education Week in July, she said the union has had to use the legal defense fund “very rarely,” but the laws are leading to a lot of self-censorship.)